The starting point for any analysis is the guaranteed freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly in sections 2(b) and (c) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We start here because these freedoms are secure from any government body, including the federal parliament and provincial legislatures.
There is no absolute freedom of assembly in Canada. First, the Charter itself limits it by guaranteeing only “peaceful” assembly. That’s why the government can restrict certain kinds of assembly that it considers not peaceful. Such restrictions do not infringe on the Charter freedom of assembly unless the courts disagree with the government’s interpretation of what’s “peaceful.”
Only law can limit a Charter right. A police officer cannot limit a Charter right on his or her own initiative without any authority in law. When the police break up a street protest, they can do it either because the protest is not peaceful or because law prohibits the protest for a good reason acceptable in a free and democratic society. Police officers may not break up a protest in any other circumstances. If they do, these officers will be breaking the law.
Our police forces are professional, highly trained, and generally honest. But it is not their job to determine the content of the Charter freedom of peaceful assembly. Provincial legislatures and the federal parliament must step in and give clear guidance to the police when they can break up street protests. The police can make mistakes and may have its own institutional interests that are not necessarily the same as the public interest. The people have a right to clear notice of what is lawful, and we all have a fundamental freedom of peaceful assembly.